Fri, Apr 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The American century is not over yet

The inventor of the term ‘soft power’ believes that the US has many advantages over China that mean it is likely to resume its leadership role in Asia after Donald Trump leaves office

By Joseph Nye

Illustration: Mountain people

When the Trilateral Commission — a group of political and business leaders, journalists and academics — met in Singapore recently, many expressed concern about the decline of US leadership in Asia.

Every Asian country now trades more with China than with the US, often by a margin of two to one. That concern has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s recent imposition of tariffs and expressions of contempt for multilateral institutions.

A frequently heard question in Singapore: Will US leadership in Asia survive the Trump years?

History provides some perspective. In 1972, then US-president Richard Nixon unilaterally imposed tariffs on the US’ allies without warning, violated the framework of the IMF and pursued an unpopular war in Vietnam. Fear of terrorism was widespread and experts expressed concern about the future of democracy.

The following year, David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski created the Trilateral Commission, which meets once a year to discuss such problems.

Contrary to conspiracy theories, the commission has little power; but, like other informal channels of “track two” diplomacy, it allows private citizens to explore ways to manage thorny issues. The results can be found in its publications and on its Web site.

In Singapore, there was no consensus about Asia after Trump. For example, Indian and Chinese members held different positions about the role of China’s Belt and Road initiative infrastructure projects.

Some Asians and Americans differed over the prospects for a successful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, as well as the larger question of whether a China-US war is inevitable.

Some Europeans wondered whether the current global uncertainty reflects the rise of China or the rise of Trump.

My own guess, which I told the group might be wrong, is that the US can recover its leadership after the Trump years if it relearns the lessons of using power with others as well as over others.

The US will have to use its soft power to create networks and institutions that will allow it to cooperate with China, India, Japan, Europe and others to deal with transnational problems — for example, monetary stability, climate change, terrorism and cybercrime — that no country can solve unilaterally.

That will require overcoming the unilateral policies and attitudes associated with the rise of Trump.


As for the rise of China, contrary to current pessimism, the US will retain important power advantages that will last longer than even an eight-year presidency, should Trump be re-elected.

The first is demography. According to UN data, the US is the only developed country expected to contribute to global population growth by 2050. China, the most populous country now, is projected to lose the top spot to India.

The second advantage is energy. A decade ago, the US seemed hopelessly dependent on imported energy. Now the shale revolution has transformed it from an energy importer to an exporter, and North America may be self-sufficient in the coming decade at the same time that China is becoming more dependent on energy imports.

Technology is a third advantage for the US. Among the technologies that will convey power in this century are biotechnology, nanotechnology and the next generation of information technology, such as artificial intelligence and big data.

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